Last month’s stunning announcement that Oklahoma and Texas would be joining the SEC created shockwaves across the college football landscape. How could it get to this point, where the two traditional powers in the Big 12 would abandon the conference and join the SEC, the strongest football conference in the country?
The story doesn’t begin in this decade. Hell, it doesn’t even begin in the 2000s. You need to go all the way back to the 1970s and a Supreme Court decision that would forever change college football.
In 1977, the College Football Association (CFA) was created. The CFA, to broadly sum it up, was a coalition of several conferences and independent schools with the set goal of negotiating TV rights for all the members outside of the NCAA’s shadow. CFA members included schools from the ACC, Big Eight, Southwest Conference, SEC, and WAC. Notably, two conferences did not join the CFA – the Pac-8 and Big Ten.
Once the CFA got a TV deal done, the NCAA threatened to punish the member schools. That didn’t go over well. Georgia and Oklahoma sued the NCAA, and the Supreme Court ruled in their favor in 1984, deciding that schools and conferences could sell their own TV rights. And while the CFA benefitted from the decision, in a cruel twist of fate, the two conferences that weren’t members arguably benefited more. The Supreme Court’s decision allowed both the Big Ten and Pac-8 to negotiate their own TV deals.
And in the early 1990s, all hell broke loose. The CFA agreed to a $210 million deal (covering 63 schools!) in January of 1990. Weeks later, Notre Dame bolted the CFA and sold its home games to NBC on a five-year, $38 million deal. And then, the conference realignment dance began. The Big Ten (not a CFA member) added Penn State (a CFA member at the time). Arkansas left the SWC for the SEC. Florida State, Miami, and South Carolina joined the ACC, Big East, and SEC, respectively.
The additions of Arkansas and South Carolina allowed the SEC to host a conference championship game, the first of the power conferences to do so. Conference championship games were allowed thanks to an NCAA ruling in the late 1980s, spurred on by (of all conferences) the Pennsylvania State Athletic Conference (PSAC) and Central Intercollegiate Athletic Association (CIAA). The PSAC, which then consisted of 14 members, wanted a true football conference championship game. Under its old model, all of the conference’s schools had to leave a regular season game open on their schedule for a potential conference championship. Essentially, instead of playing the conference championship game after all the regular season games were played, it would be played as the final regular season game, and the teams not involved would be out one regular season game.
The PSAC’s original proposal allowed for a conference championship game for any conference with 14 teams playing a round robin schedule in each of two divisions. The CIAA came into the picture because they only had 12 members at the time, and they wanted the limit to be dropped from 14 to 12. The new rule was passed, but the PSAC didn’t take advantage of it. This was because the D-II playoffs expanded to 16 teams in 1988, and the PSAC was worried it would lose a spot.
Because conference realignment wasn’t really a thing in the 1980s, and eight-to-ten team conferences were the standard, the new championship game rule flew under the radar. Then the SEC made their two additions, setting the stage for them to add a conference championship game, leave the CFA, and cash in.
The Big 12
In 1994, the SEC dumped the CFA, two years after becoming the first conference to add a championship game. The conference then inked a $95 million deal with CBS, with the Big East following soon after. Then, the hammer blow came – Texas, Texas A&M, Texas Tech, and Baylor decided to leave the Southwest Conference for the Big Eight, starting in mid-1996. The SWC folded, and the Big Eight was rebranded as the Big 12.
However, the Big 12 as we knew it almost never happened. The Pac-10 actually offered memberships to both Colorado and Texas in 1994, but both declined. The Big Eight also almost became the Big 14 following rumored offers to BYU and New Mexico.
As we know now, none of that happened, and the Big 12 got a five-year, $60 million TV deal from ABC with another $30 million from ESPN. The CFA was officially dead and buried in mid-1997. After this, the college football world was at peace, and this is probably the time period people talk about when they mention “the way things were” (well, aside from the BCS).
The peace did not last long. In 2003, the ACC, thirsty for a football championship game like the SEC and Big 12, poached Boston College (after an initial delay), Miami, and Virginia Tech from the Big East. The Big East responded by taking five schools from Conference USA, most notably Cincinnati and Louisville. The other power conferences (Big Ten, Big 12, Pac-10, SEC) remained untouched by the realignment, but the ACC’s additions and introduction of a conference championship game increased its attractiveness to TV networks and viewers alike.
Two years later, the Big Ten went on a different path. Instead of expanding, it became the first conference to create its own network, bringing in another revenue stream. BTN was launched after ESPN lowballed the conference with a TV rights offer. Prior to launch, the Big Ten got a ten-year, $1 billion rights deal with ESPN, which was announced on the same day as BTN’s launch announcement with Fox as a partner. That deep tie between the Big Ten and Fox would end up being a problem for the Big 12 years down the road.
We didn’t know this at the time, but the launch of BTN in 2007 would end up forcing the wheels of realignment into motion once again.
Those wheels began to turn in late 2009, when the Big Ten decided to look into expansion with the goal of increasing BTN’s reach. In June of 2010, the Pac-10 gave the green light to potential expansion. The two conferences struck on back to back days, both going after the Big 12 – Colorado joined the Pac-10, and Nebraska joined the Big Ten. That turned the Pac-10 into the Pac-11, the Big Ten into the…well, Big Ten with 12 teams, and cleaved the Big 12 down to ten.
The future of the Big 12 was then up in the air. Texas, Oklahoma, Oklahoma State, and Texas Tech all received Pac-10 invitations, as did Texas A&M. But Texas pledged its future to the Big 12, and the rest of the schools fell in line. Part of the deal included a new TV contract with Fox Sports, and eventually, a new TV contract with ESPN. The Pac-10 eventually expanded to 12 with the addition of Utah from the Mountain West, giving them the ability to host a conference championship game.
Despite the new TV deals, the round of realignment hurt the Big 12. With the conference being cut down to ten teams, it couldn’t host a conference championship game anymore, while both the Big Ten and Pac-12 could (along with the ACC and SEC).
A lack of ambition
A year later, things weren’t much better in the Big 12. The Longhorn Network launched in advance of the 2011 season, and Texas A&M (along with other Big 12 schools) was not pleased with LHN’s plans to air high school football games. The NCAA soon quashed the possibility, but it was too late for A&M – at the end of August, the school announced it was leaving the conference. A month later, Texas A&M became the 13th member of the SEC, bringing the Big 12 back down to nine teams. The conference briefly jumped to 11 in October by adding both TCU and West Virginia, but lost Missouri to the SEC in November.
The SEC now had a whopping 14 teams, and had expanded its reach into Big 12 country in the process. The additions of Missouri and Texas A&M expanded the conference into two more states, while the additions of TCU (a logical one, though one that didn’t actually expand the Big 12’s reach) and West Virginia only added the isolated West Virginia market to the Big 12’s footprint.
The Big Ten responded in kind, expanding to 14 and touching the Atlantic Ocean by adding Maryland and Rutgers from the ACC and Big East, respectively. In the midst of all this, the ACC nabbed Pittsburgh and Syracuse from the Big East. A year later, it added Notre Dame (though not in football) and Louisville.
Following these defections, the Big East was essentially split in half, with the so-called “Catholic 7” retaining the conference’s name and forming a non-football, basketball-centric conference. The remaining football schools joined up with a handful of schools from Conference USA to form the newly-branded American Athletic Conference, which launched with 11 members. That was shy of the 12 needed for a conference championship game, but Navy’s addition in 2015 allowed the conference to be split into a pair of divisions and add the lucrative title game.
The Big 12 got a reprieve in 2016 when the NCAA eliminated its rule about 12 teams being needed for a conference title game. Despite having just ten teams, the Big 12 was able to reinstitute its conference championship game. In one respect, the conference was coming in from the cold, but it was about to get chilly in another respect.
The beginning of the end
While the Big 12 had its long-term TV deals with both Fox and ESPN, the conference was being boxed into a corner. The Pac-12 announced its own network in 2011 (unlike with BTN, there isn’t a network partner attached to the Pac-12 Network), launching it in the summer of 2012. Like the Big 12, the Pac-12 had TV deals with both ESPN and Fox, expiring at the same time as the Big 12’s deals. The SEC and ACC both also launched their own conference networks, with ESPN as both of their network partners, tying the two conferences to the network for the foreseeable future. The relationship between the SEC and ESPN deepened even more when CBS lost the SEC’s Tier 1 rights package to ESPN, giving the network full exclusivity for both the ACC and SEC.
Less than a year later, Oklahoma and Texas made their decision to leave and join the SEC, effective in 2025.
The College Football Playoff has also not been kind to the Big 12. Oklahoma is the conference’s lone school to make appearances in the playoff, and they’ve lost in the semifinal in all four of their appearances. In 2014, Baylor and TCU were doomed by the lack of a championship game, as the two schools finished tied at the top of the conference’s standings and finished fifth and sixth in the final playoff rankings. A two-loss conference champion Sooners team missed out on the 2016 playoff (though this was also the year where a two-loss, conference champion Penn State lost out on a playoff spot to Ohio State, who they beat earlier in the season). In the screwy 2020 season, Iowa State won the regular season Big 12 title, and lost in the championship game to an Oklahoma team they had beaten earlier in the season.
The potential expansion to 12 teams would, of course, help the Big 12. But it’s worth noting that even with an expanded field, there’s no guarantee the conference would place multiple teams in the field every year. Including Oklahoma’s four appearances in the Playoff, the Big 12 has received just 12 New Year’s Six games in the seven seasons since the start of the Playoff (fewer than the SEC, Big Ten, and ACC), and a full half (six) of those games featured the outgoing Sooners.
Aside from Oklahoma, Baylor is the lone team to make more than one New Year’s Six appearance for the Big 12, losing both times. Keep in mind that the Big 12 conference champion is guaranteed a New Year’s Six game each year due to the conference’s tie-in with the Sugar Bowl in years it doesn’t host a semifinal.
Without Oklahoma (and Texas, who have played in just one New Year’s Six game in the Playoff era), would the College Football Playoff still have a desire to guarantee the Big 12 a spot in the New Year’s Six? The proposed qualification rules for the 12-team playoff only discuss the six highest placed conference champions. A 9-3 Big 12 champion TCU or Iowa State would probably end up as one of the top six conference champions, but that would all depend on the makeup of the Big 12 – if it still even exists.
The Big 12 simply cannot exist, in the era of the bloated conference, with eight teams. And while the conference can expand to get back up to ten, or even 12, teams, it would be tough to find logical additions that would be effective at increasing the conference’s footprint. A school like independent BYU or UCF of the American might be somewhat logical, but like West Virginia, they’re detached from the rest of the conference’s schools (Cincinnati falls into the same boat, though they are neighbors with West Virginia). The opposite would be true of old Southwest Conference schools Houston, Rice and SMU – all are logical additions, but they’re already knee deep in Big 12 country.
However, there may be an intriguing possibility for the Big 12 to somewhat reinvent itself as a conference, one less reliant on the Red River Rivalry to draw eyeballs and storylines. Why not, instead of just blowing the whole thing up, try to infuse even more new blood? Houston, Rice, and SMU would be a fine start. What about schools like Colorado State, Louisiana, and Memphis? Sure, they don’t have the brand appeal like Oklahoma and Texas, but they’d be competitive in football (except for poor Rice) and would likely end up being expansion targets for conferences when we inevitably get another round of realignment in a decade.
Whatever ends up happening, the Big 12 cannot do what it as a conference has largely done over the last 25 years – that is, stand idly by while the other conferences rush past. That’s what they did when Nebraska and Colorado left. That’s what they did when the four other power conferences launched their own TV networks. The only time the conference ever really fired back at its competitors was when Missouri and Texas A&M jumped to the SEC and the Big 12 added TCU and West Virginia. Today, the conference finds itself in a similar, but more dire, situation. It cannot be passed by, especially in the face of this new ACC/Big 10/Pac-12 alliance, once again. If so, it’ll be more like a midmajor with a famous name – kind of like the Big East when it was going through its death throes a year ago.